Comparison Titles and why American Dirt Doesn’t Have the Range
Illustration by Ilene Anders
The book has an all-white cover. It is decorated with black barbed wire, and bluebirds flying in staccato, an attempt to beautify a horror many readers of this novel are exempt from experiencing or ever have to engage with. There’s a blurb from Don Winslow calling it “the Grapes of Wrath for our times,” which is highly offensive—John Steinbeck actually had the range. In reading the Grapes of Wrath, one felt the poignant conditions of the Joad family. One felt their anxiety, desperation, as well as the little moments of joy they tried to salvage. I did not feel this while reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Rather, this bestseller was the unremarkable product of a system of comparison titles that keep the publishing industry extremely white and homogenous.
Cummins received a seven-figure advance for this novel. American Dirt had several bidders. Publishing houses knew it would sell well largely due to comparison titles. Comparison titles are books similar to the book one plans to pitch to a publisher. For example, if one wanted to pitch a book about a love story set in France, it can be compared to numerous other books written. This is to predict the potential book’s salability. It’s imperative it has sale trends similar to the previously written books about a love story set in France. Comp titles help editors determine the market audience for the book and its sales trajectory. When a potential book’s comp title cannot be found or it’s discovered it may not do well in sales, it’s highly unlikely publishers will bid on the book. This creates a dilemma. Comp titles are highly homogenized and conservative. They are limited as they only follow what has previously worked. They preserve and perpetuate the status quo. In an essay for Los Angeles Review of Books, Laura B. Mcgrath discovered the majority of comps books are written by white authors.
According to her research, from 2013 to 2019 only nine titles by people of color were included in the referencing list; N. K. Jemisin’s A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, We the Animals by Justin Torres, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. Just nine out of 225 books. That means 4 percent of comp titles are for books by people of color. This makes it especially difficult for authors of color to publish stories, which might differ from the status quo. This is not to say it is not worth it for authors of color to sell their manuscripts and attempt to get their stories published. There are many publishers, mainstream and independent. Their comp titles may have references for stories written by people of color. However, this is problematic as well. The system then begins to look for stories of people of color as prescriptive. Publishers then only begin to sell stories of people of color that seem familiar in topics and have the same “guarantee” of being sold.
This is why American Dirt ‘s success is excruciatingly frustrating, but not surprising. Stories about people of color and the trauma they experience as a result of their marginalization are profitable, especially if written by white people and centering the white gaze. For example, observe the success of Little Bee or The Other Hand (published in 2008), which is written by a white British man and told from the perspective of a Nigerian girl who is a refugee. The novel is rife with trauma porn and mostly similar to American Dirt in its plot. Black or Brown person is experiencing harrowing detailed violence, Black or Brown person seeks refuge in the West. Black or Brown person meets white savior(s). Black or Brown person is “saved.” Rinse. Repeat. This white savior formula is rampant in literature and is almost always the manner in which Black or Brown people’s lives are somewhat taken “seriously.” Look at the entire American Literary canon, from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Heart of Darkness, and many others. Contemporary novels such as The Help and Cloud Atlas exemplify this problem as well.
The novel follows the lives of Lydia Quixano Pérez and her son Luca as they seek refuge in the U.S. as a result of drug cartel violence in Mexico. Not only were most of the characters’ stereotypes, a lot of the writing did not make sense. There is a certain ignorance and naiveté in which Lydia deals with information that betrays the notion of lived experience. Her voice is odd. It’s often rife with disbelief and sarcasm. It is not a voice of someone who has a modicum of Mexican cultural experience. For example, Lydia has a conversation with her husband Sebastian (a journalist, who is later murdered by the cartel) about the cartel Kingpin. Sebastian mentions how dangerous the Kingpin is and how his nickname is “La Lechuza,” the owl. Lydia laughs at this. She replies “owls aren’t scary.” I wasn’t cognizant of why this particular scene was significant in its ignorance, until Mexican- American writer David Bowles pointed out the issue. According to him, in Mexican folklore, La Lechuza is a screech owl. The story follows; Lechuza was a witch who was discovered to be doing devil’s magic. She was murdered as a result. To exact her revenge, she returned as a screech owl. At times she shapeshifts and transforms. She’ll appear at times with a woman’s face and the body of an owl. La Lechuza is feared in Mexico as it is connected to death and witches. Not only is Lydia’s reaction odd, but clearly it is that of an outsider looking in. And in this instance, the outsider isn’t even trying to understand. Jeanine Cummins, white people in general, take their positionality and understanding of the world as universal and inherently valuable, and therein lies the ultimate problem with this novel and the publishing industry as a whole. Cummins was allowed to write this novel because of her positionality. She claimed she wished someone more “Brown,” than she could have written this novel, but they already have.
Cummins wrote this novel through research. She read many works by Mexican and Mexican-American authors such as Luis Alberto Urrea, Valeria Luiselli, and Sonia Nazario to name a few. Her story has already been written, so why did she feel her voice was the essential missing piece? Why did she feel as if she could finally put a “face” to “faceless Brown masses”? While conducting research for the novel she also visited the U.S. Mexican border. The majority of migrants at the border currently and for the last few years are from Central Latin America. They are mostly Honduran, Guatemalan, and El Salvadorian. It is doubtful she mostly interviewed Mexican refugees at the border. As someone who claimed her motivations for writing this story was to give a voice to a “faceless Brown mass,” it seems counterproductive to lump Latinx migrants together as one large faceless Brown mass, whose trauma is interchangeable and exchangeable. Also, in her acknowledgment, she thanked Alex Renteria of the US Border Patrol. The U.S. Border Patrol has been linked to the deaths of many Central Americans seeking refuge at the border.
American Dirt is not extraordinary in any manner. It is not exceptionally well written. The manner of storytelling is awkward, filled with clunky metaphors and symbolism that has no grasp of Mexican cultural understanding. Cummins is not intentional about how language is used. Spanish words are strewn randomly and haphazardly as a way to make the story seem more authentic. The language tries too hard, because it is doing too much. It has to mask the author’s ignorance, while trying to sell us authenticity. This story does not mention how the drug cartel violence came about, let alone America’s complicity. It surely does not mention how Americans themselves are complicit in this violence as well. There is not a deep excavation of forced migration either. It does not challenge readers in any manner. It depicts an inaccurate story of migration about a random “faceless” Brown family. Lydia and Luca are not fully human. They are perfect and all good, because that is what it takes for Cummin’s audience to humanize migrant refugees. One can read this novel and feel as if they are “woke,” and doing their part. Once again, this novel’s success is especially frustrating, but not surprising. Cummins had many bidders, while books by actual Mexican migrants on similar topics were rejected left and right. Mexican American author Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir Excavation was rejected 20 times. It was finally published by a small press. American Dirt sold about 48,000 copies in its first week. It was endorsed by Oprah Winfrey as part of her book club as well.
The success of this novel is a larger issue within the publishing industry and whiteness in general. It is harmful when stories by people of color are seldom published, and when they are, they are mostly written by white people who are removed from the communities they depict and their experiences. This is not about censorship either. Many will claim this is to limit the stories white people are allowed to tell, but this argument is simply a silencing tactic. It’s not simply about whether you have the right to write about others, it’s about the why. Why do you have to tell this story specifically? And if you must tell this story, are you willing to take it seriously? Are you going to consider your positionality and the way in which you move through this world? What privilege do you hold that blinds you to the lived realities of others? Will you write this story with intentionality and care? We treat the lives of people of color, predominantly darker skinned people of color as if their lives are precarious.
We have to admit as a result of whiteness and white supremacy, white people feel entitled to people of color’s lives, experiences, cultures, and labor. There is a certain “access” to the lives of people of color white people feel privy to. There was no need for Cummins to write this novel. Not only is she not engaged with the community she is writing about, but she herself does not see them as human beings. She romanticizes their trauma in order to create a white savior narrative. She also simply does not have the range. There are many other books written by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans about the refugee crisis such as The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea and The Everything I Have Lost by Sylvia Zéleny that are much better written and depict the situation at hand.
Considering our understanding of comp titles, American Dirt is especially heinous because it feels like a mockery. Black and Brown authors have spoken often about how difficult it is to publish their own works. The mounting rejection letters. The doubts in their own abilities to create literary art based on this feedback. The frustrations of watching others who are not from these communities write stories, profit off of their pain and marginalization, and claim they are doing so as a benefit to them. Every aspect of the publishing industry is built to keep them at bay. The system of comp titles suggests to writers of color they are not reliable narrators of their own stories. That only stories written about them, but not by them are more marketable/profitable, or remotely worthy of massive acclaim and seven-figure advances.
I do not have any solutions for the publishing industry as I do not have solutions for dismantling whiteness as a construct and white supremacy. White publishers, editors, executives, need to understand their positionality and privilege as white does not make them more valuable, more intelligent, more worthy, and essentially more human. The work has to be done by white people. White writers need to understand every story isn’t theirs to tell, especially when people of color are concerned. You cannot expect to write a story about people of color from the white gaze and not have it be racist and problematic. People of color have been writing great literary works for centuries. They don’t need to do anything, but to keep producing great art. It is up to white people to create change. American Dirt is one of many books that will be published that will cause more harm than good. It will go on to sell more copies. It will become a comp title of its own and white authors who want to write trauma porn about communities of color will have plenty of opportunities to do so—as it’s evidently profitable. Jeanine Cummins will make lots of money. Many people, predominantly white people, will read it and for two seconds feel bad about the crisis at the border in Mexico. The novel is just as shallow and simple as the referencing system that bolstered its success.